Romancing a spy on FX (and in real life)
The first and most important rule for being a CIA spy is: Don’t fuck your asset. This rule bears repeating: Don’t sleep with your asset, don’t nail a potential asset, don’t have “relations” with someone who even knows your asset. Once sex is introduced into a spy-asset relationship, the critical element of control is lost. Sex clouds judgment in any relationship; sex in the world of espionage can have deadly consequences.
It’s inevitable that when you live and work overseas for the CIA, you could potentially meet a non-American romantic partner. The Agency doesn’t prohibit romance with foreigners, but it does require that employees get any such relationship approved by an internal CIA security office. If you thought getting parental approval of your boyfriend or girlfriend was tough, try getting the CIA’s.
Having Uncle Sam monitor your sex life sounds crazy, but it’s the CIA’s way of ensuring that its employees aren’t being targeted by foreign intelligence agencies. Foreign intelligence officers (like those at the KGB in The Americans) attempt to “honey-trap” — a.k.a. sexually entangle — U.S. intelligence officers in the hopes of getting intelligence from them.
Even though espionage is a career based in deceit, the CIA maintains a “code of conduct” that prohibits sexual relationships with an asset. I am frequently asked if I slept with foreign assets when I worked for the Agency. My answer: “Hell no.” There is nothing less sexy than hearing your Eastern European asset comment in broken English, “You have nice tits for an American girl,” while he ashes his eighth cigarette on your lap.
The season finale of The Americans, “The Colonel,” focuses on the fallout from out-of-control spy-asset relationships. FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has unwisely moved his relationship with Russian asset Nina from professional to personal, and his judgment is muddled by his emotional attachment to her. In the eighties, intelligence organizations were old boys’ clubs, so the implicit approval of the affair by Stan’s boss Frank Gaad (Richard Thomas) is very plausible.
A spy has to be in total control over his asset. Stan doesn’t see that Nina’s loyalties have shifted back to the KGB after she suspects that he murdered her friend Vlad and realizes she will never get exfiltrated to the U.S. (after months of promises). He has made himself extremely vulnerable, so Nina is able to manipulate him with ease. He doesn’t realize that she’s now a double agent, double-crossing him and revealing the FBI’s sting to her KGB boss Arkady. It’s Nina’s betrayal of Stan that leads to the aborted mission and the Jennings’ (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys) ability to escape the FBI.
Though Phillip and Elizabeth, the show’s KGB agent protagonists, also employ sex as a way of eliciting intelligence — Phillip honey-trapping FBI employee Martha, for example — they’re still able to focus on their KGB missions. When a high-profile American colonel sets a meeting, both Elizabeth and Phillip sense that it has to be a sting. Spy tradecraft dictates that intelligence officers set meetings with their assets, rather than vice versa, so that they can maintain control of the circumstances and environment. In this instance, “the Colonel,” through Elizabeth’s asset, Sanford, sets the meeting — a red flag. In training, spies learn how to choose meeting sites and times; you never let your asset determine the relationship terms.
A spy is constantly evaluating and assessing his asset’s credibility, honesty, and integrity. Sanford is falling apart at the seams with a recent arrest for unpaid alimony and child support. Knowing this, Elizabeth discerns that his intelligence shouldn’t be trusted. Her instincts are proven correct: At the end of the episode, a weak and uncontrolled Sanford spills the beans to the FBI.
Developing a potential asset is similar to dating. Spies meet and “get to know” potential assets in order to determine if they have access to intelligence of interest. During the developmental process, spies can acquire romantic or physical feelings for an asset. I knew many extraordinarily talented CIA officers who blatantly ignored the Agency dating rule. My former colleagues would either lie or not report their foreign romantic encounters to the Agency. The CIA allows you to go on one date with a foreigner, but more than one and it’s labeled “close and continuing contact” by CIA security, which requires a special approval. Men loved this rule, because a one-night stand was not considered “close and continuing contact.” So after date one, you have to decide whether this person is worth the mountains of paperwork you’d have to fill out in order to continue dating him. It’s a unique quandary — how much paperwork is a blow job worth?
Still, CIA officers make a habit of testing the Agency foreign dating rule. An officer would sleep with one girl more than once, purposely not learn her name, and report to agency security that he dated F.N.U /L.N.U. In government acronym speak, that stands for “First Name Unknown/Last Name Unknown.” F.N.U/L.N.U allowed an agency officer to sleep with the same foreign woman on more than one occasion and never find out her name, but report her to security so that he would still be working within the rules. I appreciate the ingenuity that it took CIA officers to figure out the F.N.U/L.N.U sex loophole.
While the KGB and the CIA are ultimately similar in many ways, the former’s use of sex for intelligence-gathering makes the agencies very different. The KGB appears to have no concern for the emotional or moral implications that sex has in espionage relationships. (In The Americans, Phillip’s boss Claudia is an official witness at his faux wedding.) While serving for the CIA, I never thought about dating a foreigner or getting sexually involved with an asset. My focus was always on my job, and I understood that a loss of concentration could jeopardize the operation or someone’s life. And like Claudia, I hated paperwork, so dating U.S. citizens like agency colleagues and an occasional FBI agent (I named him “Special Agent Abs” for obvious reasons) made my life much easier.